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Sunday, February 5, 2017

Journalism Isn’t Creative Writing

Journalists are the historians of the present, not novelists, entertainers, spokespersons, subject experts, commentators, or prognosticators. Their job is not interpretation, prediction, or narrative creation, but the reporting, explanation, and verification of facts, events, uncertainty, probability, and context. Without context facts are meaningless. A 50% increase sounds big unless it’s from 2 to 3. They need to abandon hyperbole, opinion, and embellishment, like Elmore Leonard’s advice to good writers to avoid all adverbs. Let the facts in context reveal the narrative and the reader/viewer’s interpretation determine the drama. This is speaking truth to power. 

To regain credibility, stop treating every scientific discovery and study as the final word on the subject. Science is based on uncertainty, debunking, and questioning. It is a body of evidence linked by theories that have yet to be disproved, not a dogma of certainty. It is a process involving a balance based on the weight of evidence, often debunking the scientist's personal opinion. A scientist only knows that  their theory appears correct when they have failed to disprove it.  Pushing false certainty is creating certainty in falsehood. 

Also, demanding instant information from investigations, particularly criminal ones, is a toxic effect of the 24-hour news cycle. Everyone knows that early information is confused and that it takes time to sort things out effectively, but you have to fill every broadcast second to enable advertising. It’s turning science and journalism into the Super Bowl, where 15 minutes of actual football action happens amid 50 minutes of advertising with the rest of the three hours time-fillers and entertainment. The ads are the goal, not the athletics competition, and it’s reported upon endlessly in advance and on the day as if it is vital world news. This has led to the election of the Super Bowl of presidents. 

News organizations have been Tweeting information for years in the form of sound bites delivered in tabloid style. Now they’re getting bitten and the Enquirer is as trusted as the New York Times. Drama without context has created the false equivalency problem because the media has confused artificial conflict with balanced debate. Sometimes it's just in the tone of the presenter's delivery. Every-time announcements were made about legalization of cannabis they were delivered as if dramatic obstacles never before encountered when they were exactly the same ones faced by alcohol, tobacco, and other regulated substances. Like the way "reality" game -shows are edited to condense and amplify minor things into tension and to leave cliffhangers at every commercial break, it manufactures drama, threat, and conflict where there are none, often detracting from the actual inherent ones.

Stick to the facts in context and leave narratives, opinions, and interpretations out of journalism because none are objective or verifiable. Narration, interpretation, prognostication, and opinion, always involve a subjective bias created intentionally or unintentionally by a personal lens formed by experience and point of view. Journalists need to abandon the idea of following, chasing, or telling the "story" and return to investigating, verifying, and reporting the facts within context. Journalism with narration is a documentary not a news report.
Leave narration to narrators and the authors who create them to tell stories exploring interpretations and opinions of facts. A good writer engages readers' imaginations to help them think without saying what to think.

Truth should be the only point of journalism and accuracy its only rating system.

Truth is stranger than fiction, often involving what was believed to be unthinkable, impossible, or ridiculous.

Let reality tell its own story.